Rick Heller feels sense of urgency as Iowa baseball continues to struggle
Pitching unravels in 13-8 loss to Nebraska in Sunday's rubber match
By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa baseball team is struggling in multiple areas.
It hasn’t happened often under head coach Rick Heller, but it’s happening right now, and right now is all that matters.
Nebraska outslugged the Hawkeyes 13-8 on Sunday at Banks Field. The Cornhuskers also won Saturday’s game 10-8 after Iowa had prevailed 3-0 in the three-game series opener this past Friday.
Iowa fell to 4-7 on the season, and while there still is plenty of baseball left to be played, Heller made it pretty clear after Sunday’s loss that he feels a sense of urgency.
He was asked after the Sunday’s game if Iowa’s success as a program could help turn things around.
Iowa’s veteran players have won a lot of games under Heller, who took over in 2014 and has since turned Iowa into a perennial Big Ten contender.
Iowa entered this season averaging 30.5 wins per season under Heller, and having played in two NCAA Regionals and having claimed the first Big Ten Tournament title in program history.
“You hope that the leadership is still there that it does,” Heller said. “That’s what we’ve talked about the last couple weeks. Those group of leaders need to step up and they need to lead. The thing that happens in baseball a lot of the times is that if you’re one of the guys that everyone looks ups to and you’re struggling, it makes it difficult, at least in their eyes to lead.
“And that’s not the case. It’s how you go about your business and how you handle the failure that gives the biggest lessons to all the guys that are watching. Just trying to do a lot of coaching to keep guys fighting.”
Heller challenged his veteran players, namely his captains, to continue “to rally the troops” in what he considers a critical point of the season.
The global pandemic has been a major distraction for Iowa, and it’s changed the schedule with Big Ten teams only playing conference opponents this season.
But it still comes down to executing and winning games and that’s where Iowa is struggling.
“You get to a point in the season, especially one that started out slow like this, as the head coach, you say a lot of things and you try and get them going,” Heller said. “But at some point, the group needs to take over and run with it. And we’re kind of getting to that point.”
While Iowa’s pitching was poor in the last two games, the offense also has scored four or fewer runs in eight of the 11 games this season. So there is plenty of blame to go around.
Iowa’s struggles are not just on the field as there also is concern about the health status of second baseman Izaya Fullard, who pulled a hamstring and had to leave Saturday’s game.
Fullard is one of Iowa’s top hitters and can play both second and first base.
Iowa’s next game is Friday against Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, but it’s uncertain if Fullard will play.
“They take a long time, unfortunately, to heal,” Heller said of a hamstring injury. “I don’t know. We’ll play it by ear and see how he goes. I don’t think we’ll know until probably Friday if he’s able to go at all, or partial or not.”
Heller was clearly frustrated and disappointed with Iowa’s pitching on Sunday.
Duncan Davitt started, but was pulled with two outs in the second inning after having allowed four hits, two walks and five earned runs.
Iowa surrendered eight walks as a staff in Sunday’s game, and also used eight pitches.
“The thing that concerned me the most, I never talk about you have to do this or that or win; we just talk about being confident, controlling yourself and attacking the hitter and really competing,” Heller said. “That was the discerning thing today was that we just didn’t do any of those things. And I have no idea why. I don’t have an answer for it.”
Iowa also had three errors in Sunday’s game, and made some base-running blunders.
Senior centerfielder Ben Norman provided a spark in Sunday’s game with his third home run this season, and with four RBI, while designated hitter Tyler Snep smacked his second home run of the season.
Iowa erased an early 1-0 deficit by scoring three runs in the bottom of the first inning. But then Nebraska countered with six runs in the top of the second and never trailed again.
“It’s always frustrating, you always like to compete and be really on on those Sunday rubber match games,” Norman said. “Stuff didn’t come out our way and we’ve just got to focus a little bit more on our (at bats).”
Junior Trenton Wallace also has been solid on the mound, pitching seven shutout innings this past Friday.
But it takes multiple pitchers and multiple position players all playing well for a team to win consistently and that’s where Iowa is struggling.
It’s different than last spring when Iowa started 10-5 against a tough nonconference schedule before the season was canceled due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.
Iowa was scoring runs, pitching well and playing solid defense when last season was canceled.
The challenge now is to rediscover that winning formula known as “Hellerball” before it’s too late.
Nebraska 160 103 200 – 13 11 0
Iowa 301 002 020 – 8 10 3
W – Tyler Martin (1-0). Lose – Duncan Davitt (1-1).